Senators Mazie Hirono and Kamala Harris recently pressured a federal judicial nominee, Brian Buescher, to distance himself from the Catholic fraternal group the Knights of Columbus, of which he is a member. This anti-Catholic attack was just the latest in a series—an earlier episode occurred in September 2017, when Senator Dianne Feinstein interrogated nominee Amy Coney Barrett with the criticism,“the dogma lives loudly within you.”
This anti-Catholicism is of a different sort than the anti-immigrant hostility of the late nineteenth century, which led to the creation of organizations like the Knights of Columbus. The new anti-Catholicism is much more selective because of changes in cultural acceptability. And Senators Feinstein, Hirono, and Harris are obviously attuned to what is culturally acceptable in their circles.
Remember the Russian-hacked emails on Wikileaks in which two Democratic strategists speculated about why some prominent conservative news executives were raising their kids as Catholics? One mused, “they must be attracted to the systematic thought and severely backwards gender relations and must be totally unaware of Christian democracy.” The other responded that these executives and other conservatives were probably attracted to Catholicism because it's “the most socially acceptable politically conservative religion. Their rich friends wouldn't understand if they became evangelicals.”
The Democrat strategists who wrote these emails were themselves Catholics. Indeed, another set of Wikileaks emails revealed that certain Catholic-affiliated policy groups—Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and Catholics United—had been created by Democrat strategists to contribute to a “Catholic Spring.” In the words of one email, this would be a movement “in which Catholics themselves demand the end of a Middle Ages dictatorship and the beginning of a little democracy and respect for gender equality in the Catholic Church.”
If the strategy is to co-opt and foment internal division, it makes no sense to be against all Catholics. Indeed, one of the standard responses to charges of anti-Catholicism is to trot out a prominent Catholic Democrat to vouch for how much Democrats value religious belief. That was how the Clinton/Kaine campaign responded to the derisive discussions of Catholics in the Russian-hacked emails.
The Democrats' tactics appear to be evolving. Probably driven by blowback against Feinstein's “dogma” comments, the new tactic is to target a religious subgroup rather than Catholicism in general. In the case of Barrett, that was a group called People of Praise. A few weeks after her hearing, the New York Times ran a story about this “small, tightly knit Christian group” under the headline “Some Worry About Judicial Nominee's Ties to a Religious Group.” By D.C. standards, this Christian group with roots in the Catholic charismatic renewal was akin to the less socially acceptable “evangelicals” and therefore a better target.
This may be the reasoning of those going after the Knights of Columbus. Until their recent change in regalia, after all, the Knights were most visible to outsiders as men with capes, swords, and plumed headgear in ceremonial honor guards. If that's all you know of the Knights, you might think they're a bit odd or marginal.
The more likely explanation, though, is much simpler. The Knights are a voluntary organization firmly on one side of the culture wars. They made themselves a target in 2016 when Supreme Knight Carl Anderson said “[i]t is time to stop creating excuses for voting for pro-abortion politicians.” In the same speech, Supreme Knight Anderson criticized U.S. abortion law as “a legal regime that has resulted in more than 40 million deaths,” a statement Senator Harris included in her abortion-driven inquisition into Buescher's beliefs. The Knights are a better target because they made themselves one.
It's a sad sign of the state of American Catholicism that simply being Catholic does not make a person as worthy of attack as being in the Knights of Columbus. But when one of the nation's two major political parties is trying to foment internal dissent in the Church, it's good to know which side the Knights are on.
Those in the most awkward position are not those on a side, but those who try to have it both ways. These are the politicians who accept money, awards, and political support from organizations like Planned Parenthood while presenting themselves to the public as bona fide Catholics. These individuals are a source of scandal for the Church, and whether they should be permitted to present themselves for Holy Communion has been a source of ongoing controversy.
I do not know whether any of these straddlers are members of the Knights of Columbus. If they were in the past, they probably should have resigned by now. But if any remain Knights, these men should be pressured to publicly renounce the tactics of Senators Feinstein, Hirono, and Harris, or be expelled from the organization. In the hacked emails, one of the Democrat strategists cracked that conservative Catholics “can throw around ‘Thomistic' thought and ‘subsidiarity' and sound sophisticated because no one knows what the hell they're talking about.” If any good comes of this attack on the Knights, perhaps it will be in providing a lesson in another pillar of Catholic social teaching: solidarity.
I confess to having once tried to quit the Knights of Columbus. My family and I had moved to a different state, our new parish did not have an affiliated council, and I felt no need to seek one out. Somehow, my resignation was never processed. When we moved back to our previous parish a couple years later, I had three years of dues to pay. So I did. And while I have not been too active in recent years, that may change. It's hard to say because life is busy and time is finite. But my annual dues assessment just came in the mail, and I'm going to include an extra ten dollars for the Knights to keep fighting the good fight.
Kevin C. Walsh is professor of law at the University of Richmond.